New York Music Daily

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Tag: klezmer music

A Wild, Diverse Klezmer and Balkan Brass-Fueled Show at the Mercury at the End of the Month

Danish band Mames Babegnush blend acerbic Eastern European klezmer music with brooding Nordic sounds. They bring a brassy intensity to rousing dance numbers as well as moodier, slower material. They’re playing a very synergistic twinbill put together by the World Music Institute at the Mercury on August 27, with the perennially boisterous, similarly dynamic Slavic Soul Party – who are as adept at hip-hop horn music as they are at Duke Ellington and the Balkan sounds they made their name with – opening the night at 7 PM. $20 advance tickets are very highly recommended; the venue has them behind the counter when the doors open at 5 PM on weekdays.

For a good idea of what Mames Babegenush’s inventive original tunes sound like live, check out their live album Mames Babegenush With Strings, recorded on their home turf in 2016 and streaming at Bandcamp. As you’ll notice by the time the first track is over, the recording quailty is fantastic: there’s no audience noise and the clarity of the individual instruments is pristine without being sterile. The opening tune, bookeneded by pensive string interludes, is Tornado Albastru, built around a rapidfire, catchy, minor-key clarinet riff from Emil Goldschmidt. The horns – Lukas Bjorn Rande on sax and Bo Rande on flugelhorn – join with accordionist Nikolai Kornerup over the tight pulse of bassist Andreas Mollerhoj and drummer Morten Aero.

The flugelhorn takes centerstage on the sleekly swinging yet persistently uneasy Timofei’s Hora, then Kornerup gets a lush solo. The aptly titled View From a Drifting Room features some gorgeously melismatic, Balkan-tinged clarinet over tectonically shifting sheets of sound from the rest of the band.

They follow that with The Mist, a precise, poinpoint, stingingly chromatic tune that compares with Frank London‘s most recent, lustrously orchestrated work. Olympia is a big ra-a-tat romp, all the horns blustering together, spiced with some clever, vaudevillian work from the rhythm section, a catchy, tersely balletesque bass solo and a wickedly serpentine one from the flugelhorn.

Sepulchral harmonics from the strings -Andrea Gyafras Brahe and Lisa Marie Vogel on violins, Sisdel Most on bratsch and Live Johansson on cello – introduce the somber Fundador, the band finally coalescing into stately waltz time.

Balkan-flavored clarinet and muted trumpet float over a precise pulse in Mountain Dance. Dream City has an opaque string intro and slashingly bubbling unison horn riffage in the Middle Eastern freygishe mode. Opening with a lyrical bass-and-flugelhorn solo, the ballad Point 9 is the closest thing to golden-age American jazz here.

My Turkish Princess has a pulsing levantine groove, lavish, enigmatic harmonies that veer in and out of Middle Eastern chromatics, and one of the album’s most bracing solos from the sax. The most expansive and Romanian-tinged number here, Strannik has a delicate swing, a hushed yet biting sax solo and achingly moody Balkan clarinet. The final track is Podolian Prom, a rousingly edgy clapalong wedding dance that could a stripped-down Fanfare Ciocarlia. If you like your minor-key music as elegant as it can be energetic, Mames Babagenush are the band for you.

Lavish, Exhilarating New Klezmer Sounds and a Lincoln Center Gig From Clarinetist Michael Winograd

The cover of clarinetist Michael Winograd’s wildly adrenalizing new large-ensemble album Kosher Style – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him at Coney Island. It’’s winter. Facing north, just past the cantina, he raises his horn. The Thunderbolt and Parachute Jump loom in the background, sepia-toned. It’s retro, but look closely and it’s obviously in the here and now, just like the new vinyl record.

This album is all about thrills, and minor-key electicity, and sabretoothed chromatics, with all sorts of devious references that hardcore fans of the klezmer demimonde will get. Winograd worked up a lot of this material at a frequently spine-tingling weekly residency at Barbes a couple of years ago, and his bandmates sound like they’re jumping out of their shoes to play this stuff. His clarinet and Ben Holmes’ trumpet are the two main solo instruments, although the rest of the band blazes as well. Winograd is bringing this party to Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where he and the group will be playing on July 28 at 3 PM on the plaza in front of the Beaumont Theatre. Puerto Rican bomba crew Redobles de Cultura open the afternoon at 1; psychedelic Incan folk band Inkarayku close the show at around 4.

Winograd opens the record – and a lot of his live shows – with the title track, built around a rapidfire two-bar clarinet riff. If there was such a thing as Jewish dixieland, this would be it. Dave Licht’s drums tumble and rustle up a storm, Ken Maltz’s bass clarinet smokes and then Holmes takes over the big hook right before the end. All this in less than two and a half breathless minutes.

The Bar Mitzvah Bulgar has a steady, almost stern pulse: clearly, the adults are in charge at this particular simcha. Is that wistful trumpet solo a signal that they might not be so happy to see their little one pass into adulthood? Winograd’s crystalline, meticulously trilling solo after that lifts the mood and the party really starts to cook.

Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant is a moody hora of sorts, swaying along with Carmen Staaf’s stately piano and Jordan Sand’s bass, Sanne Möricke’s accordion in tandem with the clarinet as a famous Beethoven riff peeks out from the background. The International Hora has the whole ensemble pulsing tensely behind the bandleader’s edgily precise articulation. The sober syncopation is the same in Dinner in Bay Ridge, a gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, Holmes eventually taking over from Winograd, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.

The triumphantly incisive Wedding Sher is just as catchy, a long, six-minute launching pad for bracing solos from Winograd and Holmes. Online Polka seems suspiciously close to a boisterous Italian opera theme, while Brooklyn Pursuit – a popular encore at shows – has a frantic noir bustle and some of Winograd’s most thrilling lines here.

The album’s most dynamic number, Manhattan Beach Doina shifts through a brassy, Andalucian-tinged intro to a spare jazz piano piano-and-clarinet interlude and a series of false starts: just when you think it’s going to explode, it’s over. Theme From David and Goliath bristles with contrasts: Winograd’s impetuous clarinet fanning the flames of a lush, stately backdrop over waves of cymbals.

Soulful clarinet-trumpet harmonies fuel the brief Kiddish Club. It Pays to Buy the Best has an opulent, pulsing hora sway; Winograd winds up the album with a crashing, loose-limbed diptych, South Brooklyn Bulgars. The icons of the American klezmer movement of the 50s – guys like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, who brough their fearsome chops and improvisational flair to brooding melodies from the old country – would be proud of how far Winograd has taken the tradition. You’ll see this on the top ten albums of the year list here in December if Trump doesn’t blow us all up first.

Slashing Blues and Klezmer and Noir Sounds with Book of J at Barbes This Month

Saturday evening at Barbes, it was an awful lot of fun to witness the contrast in styles between guitarists Jeremiah Lockwood and Steve Ulrich. Lockwood, who’s one-half of Book of J and also leads the Sway Machinery, is a live wire, tremolo-picking sharply feathery flurries, plucking out jaggedly incisive phrases and plaintive blues licks on his vintage National Steel model. Ulrich, the film composer and Big Lazy leader was a predator waiting for his prey, cool and calm and distantly resonant, then in a flash going in for the kill with his Les Paul.

He was the special guest at Book of J’s weekly 6 PM Saturday residency at Barbes this month, which is no surprise considering that he and Lockwood have been conjuring up plenty of sinisterly spiky sounds in an on-and-off collaboration that dates back to the early zeros. Rocking a classic punk rock mohawk, Book of J frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg joined them for one of several lesbian Jewish ballads – “There’s lots of them,” she grinned, singing with triumph and passion over Lockwood’s gritty, chromatically-fueled chords and Ulrich’s signature, lingering noir accents.

Classic Barbes moment. There aren’t many venues left in New York where you can see this kind of cross-pollination creating deliciously new musical hybrids, even if they only last for a few minutes.

The rest of the set was just as diverse. Watching Ulrich play spare, purposeful, purist oldschool Chicago blues was an unexpected treat; then again, the guy can play pretty much anything. Likewise, Lockwood moved methodically from hypnotically emphatic, Malian-inspired phrasing to a ripsnorting cadenza or three and gentle, poignant jangle. The two guitarists went into allusive noir with Mood Indigo, then took another stab at the Ellington catalog, edging their way into a take of Caravan that was more of a slow, wary procession through the desert, keeping an eye out for US drones and Soviet warplanes. Their version of an uneasy Big Lazy big-sky theme had the same menace just over the horizon.

Eisenberg and Lockwood’s most riveting number together was a gorgeous klezmer tune in the Middle Eastern freygish mode, written by a famous Argentine singer and member of what was for a long time the largest Yiddish-speaking community outside of Europe and later, Israel. Lockwood introduced a slower, more allusively rapturous number as being written by an early 20th century cantor who’d chosen his daughter as his successor. That move didn’t go over with the synagogue elders, so the cantor quit. “When somebody dies, where do you say kaddish?” a friend once asked the guy. “In my garden,” he replied.

Book of J return to Barbes tomorrow night, July 20 at 6 with special guest Brian Chase on drums, playing from a new song cycle based on the work of Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. Big Lazy are back at Barbes as well on July 26 at 10; Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande’s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by badass 1940s-70s French songwriter Georges Brassens – open the night at 8.

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

Sizzling Klezmer Jamband Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Get a Head Start on This Year’s Festivities

Violinist Yale Strom is the frontman of a sizzling klezmer group called Hot Pstromi. His new album Shimmering Lights, with his Broken Consort – streaming at Rockpaperscissors – is even hotter, a spine-tingling, dynamic, chromatically delicious mix of new arrangements of classic, un-cheesy Hanukah themes from across the diaspora. The Middle East and Andalucia are well represented throughout an album of what could be called first-class acoustic Levantine jamband epics.

Amos Hoffman’s oud taqsim, beginning with a distinctly funky Moroccan flair and spiraling upward, introduces the album’s bracing, opening epic, O Mighty Stronghold. When the sttrings come sweeping in after the first verse, the effect is visceral. Likewise, Alexander Greenbaum’s stark, stygian cello solo midway through, and the big, exhililating violin/cello duel between the bandleader and Greenbaum afterward. It’s yet another reminder of how rich the mutual source of classic Arabic and Jewish music is.

The Hanukah party anthem Khanike, Oh Khanike has a rustic, shapeshifting acoustic arrangement, frontwoman Elizabeth Schwartz’s assertive delivery over a spiky backdrop, mandolin contrasting with the rhythmic washes of the bass. Who except maybe Andy Statman would have expected the wry bluegrass breakdown midway through?

The ladino theme Bring Out the Tray is a stately processional: after seven more or less hypnotic minutes, the solos kick in, first the violin, then the oud, for a mighty payoff that winds up with another, slightly less ferocious duel for strings.

There’s a little guitar jazz from Hoffman to kick off Latkes, possibly the most exalted celebration of potato pancakes ever recorded: among the highlights are a doublespeed jam, biting cello giving way to bubbly electric guitar, a big violin crescendo, and some Eastern European flatpicking.

Azeremos la Merenda has a pouncing flamenco groove, wary echoes of Turkish music, and an adrenalizing cello solo. Beshir Mizmor gives Strom a stately backdrop for some stratospheric sizzle. Schwartz indulges in some scatting in Eight Little Brothers, a Djangoesque Romany jazz remake, while La Fiesta de la Hanukia has echoes of flamenco.

With a punchy bass solo, more searing violin and crackling oud, L’chod Chanukah mashes up a scampering shtetl party theme with Django Reinhardt and some newgrass. The final cut is The Fool Over Yonder, an antifascist anthem from a few hundred years ago reinvented as low-key guitar swing that’s just as relevant today as it was back when it was probably played on oud, and a lot more slowly. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year. By the way – if you’ve read this far, would you still be here if the first sentence was something like “Here’s an album of old Hanukah songs that’s fun all year long?”

 

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.